Just got back from Cuba, where we spent 5 days. It was amazing. You can fit a lot of experiences in that short period of time when you're in Cuba.
Cuba certainly has a reputation, and we were not sure what to expect. We got on the plane and started the trip like any other. Our first experience that showed us this country is something different was already in the airport. Sarah went in first (just in case as she's US citizen and as everybody knows these 2 countries are not the best of friends, so we wanted to make sure I'm there in case she gets in some kind of trouble) and she was asked if she's alone. She pointed at me and said we're traveling together. Everything went all right, and it was my turn. The immigration check lady examined my passport very carefully and didn't believe really it was me on my passport photograph. After spending what seemed like too long time with her, she let me pass. In through the first door and two guys wanted to check my passport again. And as we were walking towards the exit, both of us were approached by a man in uniform and we were interviewed, separately. Have you been to Cuba before? What are you gonna do here? After the interview they took our passports and discussed it 5 meters away from us in a group. What was causing them concern, we don't know. We waited for like 10 minutes, got our passports back and were sent out with words 'Bienvenido a Cuba'.
First thing - exchanging money. We knew before that when exchanging US dollars Cuba charges you additional 11% commission, so we had prepared and bought euros. We got a bunch of Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and were set to go. A thing to note here is that Cuba uses 2 currencies at the same time: national pesos (for the Cubans) and convertible pesos (for the tourists). 1 CUC ~ 1.1 USD. In the touristic part of Havana the prices are in CUC, other places in national currency. Cubans have basically no way to get convertible pesos and hence they are denied from accessing a wide range of restaurants, bars, services and goods. Some locations have 2 price lists, and tourists are being charged in CUC and made to pay a much higher price. Conversion rate between the national currency (CUP) and CUC is about 24 to 1.
The airport is some 20 km away from the most important parts of the city, so we got the first glimpse of the country through our taxi window. First obvious things you see are the old Russian cars on the streets (mostly Lada 04...07 and Moskvich) and even older US cars (from the 1950s and before): they formed more than half of the cars on the street.
Second thing: huge billboards next to the road filled with propaganda. "Viva socialism!", "Che - example for us all", "The plan of Bush: destroy our livelihoods, take our homes and crush our dreams. Luckily we live in free Cuba", "Bush is a terrorist", "Building up our villages" and so on. The billboards carry mainly 3 types of messages: 1) Long live heroes like Che Guevara and others 2) Long live socialism and communism 3) Bush and the US are really evil. The latter theme was also evident in the city on smaller posters.
So it seems Cuba has a 'war on terror' campaign going on too, only the enemy is different.
For me it was in many ways like a flashback to the past - Soviet Union and its propaganda machine. Brainwashing was an important tool of the communist regime there, and still is in Cuba.
Most of our time was spent in Havana - it's huge (population over 2 million) and has lots to offer. The best attraction by far - the Havana Viejo, the old town. This part of the city has amazing colonial architecture, so when walking around you're in constant awe. It is by far one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Spain had invested so much in it, probably they never thought they have to give it away. Just take a look at some of the pictures:
True, a lot of the buildings have not seen a repair job for 5 decades and are collapsing. It is sometimes sad to see people living in those magnificent buildings and treating it like an old shack. I wonder if the people living there appreciate the buildings and Havana Viejo, or they curse that they have to live in that old piece of s... and dream of a new condominium. Or maybe I'm wrong and they just cannot do anything due to their economic situation. Once the current regime is gone, the capitalism will do it part I'm sure and Havana will be one of the most expensive places for real estate - and unfortunately the native Cubans will most likely have to move to suburbs or something.
Cuba is a mix between Soviet Union, European high culture, Latino lifestyle and 1950-s United States. It is totally unique. In many ways, Cuba has remained stuck in time. Due to the trade embargos they still drive the cars that were on the streets before the revolution, or the ones donated by the Soviet Union. They are still in the communist restrictive regime, even though there is no communist Soviet Union anymore.
The city is very safe with almost no violet crime. We heard twice from Cubans that one third of the city population are either policemen or on police salary, which makes the city very safe and no one dares to do anything. Pickpocketing and scamming are there, but can be avoided.
My first surprise regarding the prices in Cuba started when I was looking for a hotel to stay in via internet. A large majority of the hotels are over $100 a night - and I thought it's gonna be a cheap trip. And quality and price don't go hand in hand necessarily. So many hotels I was about to book had horrible reviews about bad customer service, stinking rooms and moldy bed sheets.
We still managed to find a decent one, although basic.
As the country has 2 currencies, they can drive up the prices for tourists without affecting the life of the citizens. It's a central planning economy and there is no such thing as a private enterprise, so pretty much the price level has been set by the government. I'm not sure how much a particular institution has a say about the prices they charge - all the money ends up in the same wallet anyway (the government's).
A great deal of restaurants charge you way more than the food is worth. Havana cannot really brag with culinary expertise as the food is usually pretty average. The drinks can be acquired quite cheap, we had our cheapest Cuba Libre for $1.65 and paid as much as $6 for a daiquiri in the Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar (although there were more than 1 bar that claimed to be one, but that's very possible considering that he was an alcoholic).
A beer ranged between $1 and $2. As Havana is the birth place for Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Mojito and a wide range of other coctails, we made sure we try them all from different places to know the real ones.
They do nickel and dime you a lot in Cuba, and it can get as expensive as any European capital.
Cuban cigars - or Habanos as they are called - are naturally world famous. What I didn't know before is that they are a luxury product also in Cuba. The price is out of reach for most Cubans. The best brand in the world is Cohiba and their best cigar Esplendido - which Fidel himself smokes - costs about $20 each. A box of 25 is available at national tobacco shops for just under $500. It costs way more outside of Cuba.
We visited a tobacco factory and saw how they're made by hand. It turns out that all of the Cuban cigars are made from the same tobacco - only the leaves are sorted according to the quality. The best quality leaves made the best brand naturally. Cuba boasts that they have the best microclimate in the world to grow the best tobacco to produce the best cigars. We bought a bunch too and smoked at least 1 a day. I'd smoked cigars before and I must say that the top quality cigars really are much more enjoyable and smoother in taste.
There is another industry that is as big as the cigar industry (or perhaps bigger) and that's fake cigar industry. On every corner there is a guy that says 'pst! want to buy cigars?' and then they share a story how their brother/uncle/father works at the factory and they offer out-the-back-door cigars for a much lower price. In most of the cases, it's fake stuff. They sell cigars made out of banana leaves and what not. I read stories of how some people's cigars even exploded. Ignorant tourists how know nothing of cigars and are tempted by the cheap prices get cheated all the time.
The conmen are very good too. Here's what happened to us. We were walking and I accidentally bumped into somebody going the same way. He apologized and made small talk - while looking and acting totally normal. He asked the usual questions like how do we like Cuba and where are we from (many people spark up spontaneous conversations without selling anything). Once he heard I was from Estonia his face lit up and he said 'Wow! I'm going to Estonia end of March!'. He explained how he was a conga drum player and today is a special day for him as it's his 11 year wedding anniversary. He told us he is giving a concert the same night at Buena Vista Social Club and if he want, he can get us in for free. We said 'great!' and he invited us for a drink in a nearby bar. Now it might all sound fishy already - but you have to understand that this guy was very likable, easy-going, and very natural. He told us how he likes music and loves his job. He danced salsa with Sarah and ordered a round of mojitos. He wrote us an invitation to the Buena Vista Social Club, took our names and said he will make reservations for us, so we can go for free. Then somehow the discussion went to life in Cuba and cigars, and he told us how people sell banana leaves and how people get cheated and so on. But how at the same time Cubans can get cigars cheaper and he can arrange this for me. He emphasized how he is doing it as a favor, to help out a friend as friendship and honesty are so important for him. He said musicians don't make any money in Cuba and he will get a commission when we buy cigars through him, so he can make extra living. He said the price is $200 for a box of Esplendidas, but since he likes us he can get it down to $160. The more he talked about it and the more he pushed, the more suspicious it seemed, but we couldn't be sure - maybe he was telling the truth. Then we saw how another tourist couple came in with a Cuban who was writing them something that looked like an invitation to the club. A few more hints like that, we were out of there. In the end we'll never know, maybe it was an honest guy, but sure seemed like a well-polished scam machine. He was very good.
An example how people fall for this kind of scams: we met a guy in our hotel who asked us for a loan as he had been scammed out of his money. Apparently he stumbled upon somebody who claimed he can exchange his dollars for a better rate (without the government 11% commission). Naturally, the crook took off with the money never to be seen again.
Scamming tourists out of money is by far the most profitable way to make a living in Cuba. Doctors and lawyers make $25 per month. It's easy to see the benefits of making money off of tourists.
Regarding out-the-back-door cigars: they do exist, but you have to be careful to find them. Later we found out from our Cuban friends (students at the University of Havana) that people caught stealing from tourists or scamming tourists go to jail for 15 years. So the trick is that if somebody invites you to their home and you buy cigars from there, they know and you know they have no escape from you. If they sell fakes, you can get them and the fear of police is great. We got a good deal too from a hotel security guard. He gave us the best guarantee: we know where we works, he gave his work schedule, name and everything. He let us try to goods, touch them (we learned how to distinguish real cigars from fakes too) and we liked the guarantee. Just in case we bought also the same type of cigars from the national shops to compare the difference. The risk I took was worth it, I got the real stuff for a really good price. If anyone is going to Cuba, let me know and I will tell you how to get in touch with that guard.
Where everybody knows your name
On our second day, we're walking around the neighborhood near our hotel. Several people approached us and just made conversation: where are you from? are you looking for something particular? The conversations were casual, nobody was selling us anything. What nice friendly people these Cubans are!, we thought (still do).
The weird thing was that the first three people that made conversation with us all started with the same line: I saw you arriving yesterday, you stay in hotel Deuville, right? When the first guy said that, I though he paid attention what was going on. When 2 more guys did the same, it already seemed a little creepy.
We kept walking and went into a pharmacy to see if they had some nose medicine (Sarah was having trouble with her nose). As most of the shelves were empty, they also didn't have anything for the nose. When leaving the pharmacy, another dude showed up and asked what we need. We explained the stuff and he gave directions to another pharmacy. We walked toward that direction and one more guy shows up and said he works for the security in our hotel and he saw us yesterday, he can take us to the pharmacy. Now while he might have been telling the truth, we also considered the possibility that he will lead us to a hidden corner where a gang is waiting to rob us, so we declined. We keep walking and another guy approaches and says 'hey I saw you yesterday, you have a problem with your nose, you should go see a doctor who will prescribe the correct medicine for you'. And he wanted to take us there. He kept explaining why this is a good idea and how the doctor lives nearby. We refused, kept going and one more guy came up to us and said 'Hey you're from Slovenia right? You have a problem with your nose'. I just couldn't believe how fast the news had spread. It seemed that everybody knew we came yesterday and we have a problem with the nose. I asked how come everybody knows who we are? He replied it's because we're both blonds, and so we stand out. Maybe, but out hotel was full of Europeans, some of them blonds. While walking back to our hotel, an older woman approached us and said she lives right here and has some cream we can spread on the nose - so if we want she can go get it. As we didn't feel threatened by the old woman, we kind of believed more that these people really were perhaps trying to help. But in the end we'll never know.
The dark side
When seeing the happy friendly Cubans, the amazing architecture and enjoying the gorgeous weather, it's easy to start believing Cuba is the most awesome place. We talked about wishing to meet some real Cubans to ask questions from, somebody we could trust - and the opportunity came.
We were walking towards the Plaza de la Revolucion and made a stop in the university (another amazing location). We rested our feet while sitting on the university stairs, and two guys came out from a building and sat on the stairs as well. For a while they spoke to one another, until they showed some curiosity towards us. We started to talk, and they told us about the real Cuba.
When talking to Cubans I was never sure whether they're "one of them", heavily brainwashed or they know the regime sucks. These guys, history students, were very aware. They dreamed of traveling, but as Cubans they are not allowed to leave the country. "Cuba is an open prison", one of them said. You cannot even leave the city you are resident of. If you want to go visit your relatives in another location, you have to apply for a special permit and have to specify exactly where you will stay and for how many nights. When they heard us explaining about where we have been in the last years and what are our plans, one of them asked: "so if you want you can go to Italy, France or wherever?" When learning the answer is "yes", he looked at his friend and said "that is freedom".
Cubans are kept in information isolation. They have no access to internet nor satellite TV. They can only read government newspapers and watch 4 local TV channels (Fidel 1, 2, 3 and 4). It is illegal for tourists to bring in non-fiction books, magazines or newspapers. The university curriculum and what is being taught is manipulated and reflects what Fidel wants people to think. Still they knew it was all a lie. There is internet available in the hotels, but Cubans are not allowed to enter hotels. Our hotel room had CNN and other channels, but no Cuban ever sees those.
I asked them if they think the government will ever change, they said yes, maybe in 20 years. People are not happy with the way things are, but resistance to the regime will get you in jail for 20 years and nobody wants to be the first.
People escape when they can, as just recently happened in the US when 5 Cuban soccer players took off during the Olympic Games soccer qualifying tournament.
"In Cuba it's not capitalism, it's not communism - it's Fidelism", one of them said. They thought highly of Che Guevara who they said cared for the people and with his departure everything went down the hill.
Cubans are paid ridiculously low salaries, nobody can ever save money. They are deprived of so many goods - even beef. Beef is for tourists. They cannot take part of the best Cuba has to offer as they don't have the convertible pesos. We bought them a drink in a nearby bar and we were charged tourist price -$4 per drink. They rolled their eyes when they heard the price and one of them said 'had I known it costs so much I would have taken the money, as I could have bought food for many days'.
Their stories were sad and I could feel their pain. I wanted to do something for them, help them somehow, but it's the regime that is the problem.
Here's me with our new friends:
Cuba is a gorgeous tropical place. The weather was amazing at all times. We also took the time to go to the beach. Beautiful beach was available just outside the city. We enjoyed drinks from coconut, swimming in the teal color water. A policeman was walking up to each person and asking their nationality. Not sure what was the reason, but just in case these moments we claimed both to be from Estonia. Who knows, maybe they were looking for terrorists from the US.
In any case, I would recommend for anyone to go to Cuba. If not for anything else, it's worth the experience of having a Cuba Libre while smoking a habana in Havana old town.
Just got back from Cuba, where we spent 5 days. It was amazing. You can fit a lot of experiences in that short period of time when you're in Cuba.